I want to get this out of the way before we leap into the fishy white meat of this review – I love Waterworld. I can honestly say, without hyperbole, that it is the single greatest unofficial damp remake of Mad Max 2 that was released in 1995. And you can’t disprove that.
So I came to Submerged intrigued and a little excited. Strange underwater world? Check. Big cities turned to nothing but ruins? You betcha. A sort of weird looking girl with red hair who’s essentially wearing a sack for clothes? Bosh.
But I think there’s a chance I might have expected a little too much. Because from the very first cinematic I was pretty underwhelmed. Sure it’s a bit wet, but there’s a scratchiness to everything here, and a number of complications, that mean even if you don’t love Costner gills you’re going to leave a little disappointed.
The game is set in a massive open world. You play a young girl who’s trying to keep her younger brother alive. Explore, find supplies, get a bit surprised when a giant mutant whale leaps out of the sea right in front of your rickety little boat.
The core of the experience isn’t really anything to do with the water though. That’s essentially a method from getting from A to B. And at positions A and B you’re climbing up the shattered remains of the city you’re scavenging from.
When you’re walking or sailing around in your little dinghy, the controls are pretty simple. Tap and you’ll start moving in the direction you’re facing. Tap again and you’ll stop. Swipe a finger around the screen to change the way you’re looking and potter off in that direction instead. Oh, and swiping back when you’re in the boat puts you in reverse.
Climbing is controlled with swipes, and it’s a sort of awkward system to get used to. Much like in the Uncharted games, every handhold is telegraphed for you; here mainly by red flowers. Swipe up when you’re near something you can climb and you’ll start clambering up it.
But the camera is still controlled with swipes as well, so you need short sharp jerks for climbing, otherwise you’ll just be hanging off the edge of a busted skyscraper while the view pans around at a nauseating pace.
Just getting to where you want to start heading upwards can be fiddly too. The controls don’t really give you the precision you need to stop somewhere, doubly so when you’re in the boat and you can spend a good couple of seconds circling a spot trying to get the interact button to pop up so you can get out.
On top of all that, despite what you might have seen in trailers and screenshots, the game is a bit of a clunky mess in motion. The draw distance is more of a quick sketching distance, and the water physics are nowhere near as impressive as you might have been hoping for.
I’ve played the game on both an iPad Air and an iPhone 6 Plus, and while it is smoother on the newer hardware, it’s still not quite up to the quality we’ve seen from other games on the platform. Don’t get me wrong, there’s scope and imagination here, and that should be called out and championed, but here it’s not quite enough.
Submerged is ambitious and impressive. It builds its world brilliantly, and despite the problems it has you’re still going to want to dive into its damp universe and find out what’s going on. But with a little more pruning here and there, it could have been one of the most important iOS releases of recent years. As it is, it’s an interesting curio. A sort of soggy glimpsed at what could have been. And not a cyclopean Dennis Hopper anywhere to be seen.